My Brain is Different by Monzusu

This entry is part 1 of 23 in the series 2023 Reads

I’m continuing with posting about the books I’ve read. The tag has changed to #booksread2023, but not much has changed: the posts get published with some lag—though I’m trying to shorten the lag a little, too.

Monzusu’s <em>My Brain is Different</em> is a manga about developmental difficulties and cognitive challenges. I started reading it out of curiosity, and found it interesting enough to finish. The first part of the comic tells the author’s own story of how she discovered her own ADHD after her child’s diagnosis. (This is, I’m sure, a familiar story: a lot later-in-life diagnoses seem to follow the diagnosis of that person’s child.) The rest of the book tells the stories of others who shared their stories with her, and explores a range of other developmental and neurocognitive disabilities and challenges.

It’s especially evident in this series of stories how damaging the whole academics-first, tiger-mom approach to raising a child can be if your kid’s brain isn’t the same as the average kid’s. All that pressure to study, to perform, to keep pace with others can lead to some serious emotional struggles and problems with confidence.

For me, what also was striking was how much outright bullying—in schools and at home—so many of the people in the book experienced. That, too, is I’m sure a familiar story, but it was quite astonishing to me. As a kid, I always found it strange how adults believed that all children were equally susceptible to “peer pressure,” for example. To me, there were plenty of examples of kids who were willing to be different, and seemed to have a deeply-ingrained sense of right and wrong. I feel like this is even more apparent in societies where “fitting in” is heavily emphasized, like in Japan and Korea, but I think one can really see it anywhere.

Monsuzu’s account suggests that people whose conditions fall into the range of what we call “neuroatypical” tend to experience a profound amount of bullying, exclusion, and marginalization by people who are supposedly “neurotypical.” It sounds a lot to me like the majority normalizing itself and its range of problems and weaknesses and incapacities, while being really eager to label “atypical” anyone whose problems and weaknesses and incapacities are even slightly different. How odd that the bullies, conformists, those prone to succumbing to “peer pressure” and do things they know deep down are wrong, are somehow labeled “neurotypical.” It’s enough to really make one question the distinction, especially when it comes to some of the parents in the story.

(My son’s class at school includes one boy who is on the milder end of the autistic spectrum. It was recently discovered that both the main special education teacher in the school, and the special education teaching assistant tasked with working alongside that autistic boy, are verbally and emotionally abusive to him and others. Adults who bully first graders in a prolonged way are “neurotypical” somehow? Yes, it makes one question the distinction indeed… and I’m not really implying that they’re not “neurotypical”: their behavior actually seems quite common in mainstream society, if you ask me. They likely <em>are</em> “neurotypical” as it’s defined, it’s just that neurotypical ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.

(Go ahead and think of all the horrific things in history that supposedly “neurotypical” people have done, if you need any more examples, I guess.)

That’s not to say that a person who has ADHD or autism or whatever can’t be a bully, or to valorize conditions that I know can be debilitating for some people. It is, however, to pause and note that the things highlighted as “different” or “dysfunctional” seem to be a matter of what’s more or less common, rather than how much they impact people’s ability to interact with others in healthy, sane ways. Of course, if kindness or human decency were prioritized over productivity, presentability, and other conventional measures of “success”, who would be wearing the label “neuroatypical”? I can’t help but feel a lot of the bullies would be thus labeled… and yet we’ve medicalized one set of problems while essentially ignoring (and, one course argue, actively normalizing) the other.

Another thing I liked about the book was the way it discussed how an adult with a developmental disability might struggle with parenting a child with the same disability. There was one story in particular where a father with ADHD and on the autism-spectrum struggled because his daughter exhibited symptoms of both. Somehow, he’d internalized the script his parents had used while parenting him, and replicated it when trying to parent his daughter, to his own pain and sorrow as well as that of his wife and child. It was interesting to see his growing awareness of his daughter’s condition help him ultimately begin to recognize how much he had in common with her, and to start to see what he could do to help his daughter deal with her own challenges. It was a heartening turn in a story that started out so heartbreaking.

Anyway, I don’t think it’s required reading, but it was interesting to me, and if there were more volumes following this up, I’d definitely check them out.

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